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Israel to charge Jewish extremists, pay church after arson attack

Sept. 22, 2015 10:27 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 23, 2015 12:23 P.M.)
A fireman sprays water in the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha on June 18, 2015 in the aftermath of a suspected arson attack. (AFP/Menahem Kahana, File)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel will pay damages to the church where Christians believe Jesus performed the miracle of loaves and fishes, left in ruins after an arson attack by suspected Jewish extremists, the justice ministry said.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha "should be compensated for the damages caused to it by the arson, in accordance with property tax regulations," a statement said Monday.

Two suspected Jewish extremists have been charged for torching the church on June 18.

Tax authorities had initially refused the church's request for compensation, saying it was not clear that the attack was carried out on "nationalistic" grounds.

The justice ministry however determined that, based on the charges against the suspects, the attack was related to the "Israeli-Arab conflict" and instructed that the church be compensated, Weinstein's office said.

Church officials told AFP the sum requested was approximately seven million shekels ($1.7 million).

The arson attack on the church, located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, completely destroyed one of the buildings in the compound. The church itself was not damaged.

Hebrew graffiti was found on another building within the complex, reading: "Idols will be cast out" or destroyed.

Two Jewish extremists, Yinon Reuveni and Yehuda Asraf, were charged in connection with the arson and graffiti.

A third, Moshe Orbach, was charged with writing and distributing a document detailing the "necessity" of attacking non-Jewish property and people as well as laying out practical advice to do so.

The attack on the church sparked widespread condemnation and concern from Christians globally, with the site visited by some 5,000 people daily, while also drawing renewed attention to religiously-linked hate crimes in Israel.

Directly following the attack on the Tabgha church, Israeli police said it had detained and released 16 young Jewish settlers, 10 of whom were from the Yitzhar settlement, known as a bastion of extremists and where residents have been involved in previous hate crimes.

Tabgha was subjected to an attack in April 2014 in which church officials said a group of religious Jewish teenagers had damaged crosses and attacked clergy.

There has been a long line of attacks on Christian and Muslim holy places in both Israel and the occupied West Bank, often referred to as price-tag attacks.

Critics say that such attacks -- often carried out by Jewish extremists against Palestinians -- are at times carried out under the armed protection of Israeli forces.

Suspected Jewish extremists carried out an arson attack on a Palestinian home in the occupied West Bank on July 31, leaving an 18-month-old and his parents dead.

Rights organizations and the international community condemned the attack, many arguing that Israeli policy regarding the Jewish-only settlement enterprise pave the way for such attacks to take place without repercussion.

The US State Department's 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism included price-tag attacks for the first time, citing UN figures of some "399 attacks by extremist Israeli settlers that resulted in Palestinian injuries or property damage."

Such attacks were "largely unprosecuted," it said.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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